Hunger eats away at Venezuela’s soul as its people struggle to survive

The Maduro regime denies its oil-rich country is in crisis. But on the streets the desperation cannot be hidden

Hunger is gnawing at Venezuela, where a government that claims to rule for the poorest has left most of its 31 million people short of food, many desperately so. As night falls over Caracas, and most of the city’s residents lock their doors against its ever more violent streets, Adriana Velásquez gets ready for work, heading out into an uncertain darkness as she has done since hunger forced her into the only job she could find at 14.

She was introduced to her brothel madam by a friend more than two years ago after her mother, a single parent, was fired and the two ran out of food. “It was really hard, but we were going to bed without eating,” said the teenager, whose name has been changed to protect her.

Since then Venezuela’s crisis has deepened, the number of women working at the brothel has doubled, and their ages have dropped. “I was the youngest when I started. Now there are girls who are 12 or 13. Almost all of us are there because of the crisis, because of hunger.”

She earns 400,000 bolivares a month, around four times the minimum wage, but at a time of hyperinflation that is now worth about $30, barely enough to feed herself, her mother and a new baby brother. She has signed up to evening classes that run before her nightly shift, and hopes to one day escape from a job where “everything is ugly”.

Velásquez grew up in one of Caracas’s poorest and most violent districts, but Venezuela’s food crisis respects neither class nor geography. The pangs of hunger are felt through the corridors of its major businesses, behind the microphone on radio shows, in hospitals where malnutrition is climbing sharply and already claiming lives, and at schools where children faint and teachers skip classes to queue for food.

Nearly three-quarters of Venezuelans have lost weight over the past year, and the average loss was a huge 9kg, or nearly a stone and a half, according to a survey by the country’s top universities. For many that is simply because food is too expensive. Nine out of 10 homes can’t cover the cost of what they should eat.

And 10 million people skip at least one meal a day, often to help feed their children.

David González, not his real name, had a college degree, a career and modest middle-class dreams of owning a car and a house before Venezuela slipped towards its current crisis, and spiralling inflation made the food he needed to stay alive unaffordable. In a cafe in downtown Caracas, he explains how his dreams shrank with his wasting body, now so emaciated that ribs and collarbones poke through a once-chubby chest.

“It’s sad because you stop thinking of what your professional goals and challenges are and instead just focus on what you can eat,” said the 29-year-old activist and journalist. Like many of Venezuela’s hungry middle classes he was ashamed of his situation.

“I had seen people suffering, I saw people queueing for bread, but it had not reached me, I didn’t expect it would,” he said. “Never in my life had I spent a night worrying about what I would eat tomorrow.”

This year he has done little else. He stands 5ft 7in tall, and has lost more than a quarter of his body mass, shrinking to little over 50kg (7st 12lb) since the start of the year. During a checkup for a new job, doctors diagnosed a heart murmur caused by stress and hunger. He gets up at 5am to queue for food, but sometimes it isn’t there.

“Its like an obstacle course. You have to find money to buy food, a place to buy it and then get there in time,” he said, with a wry grin that has survived better than his health, before adding: “One of the good things about Venezuelans is they laugh about it all – food, and security and health.”

This summer he swallowed his pride and signed up for a monthly box of subsidised food sold by the government for about $1. “I didn’t want to be part of that scheme. But I had to change my decision, to literally not die of hunger.”

President Nicolás Maduro says Venezuela’s problems are the result of “economic warfare” waged by the US. He points to Donald Trump’s public mulling of a “military option” earlier this month as evidence Washington is pushing for regime change, and on Friday slammed ramped-up US sanctions against the government and the state-owned oil corporation as an overt bid to undermine the government by forcing it to default on debt.

Former foreign minister and top aide Delcy Rodríguez has denied the country has a food crisis, denouncing the “blackmail of hunger”. She told the new legislative super-body she heads: “In Venezuela there is no hunger, there is willpower. There is indignation and courage to defend Venezuela.”

But critics and economists say the crisis is both real and self-inflicted, the result of a government using a raft of imports as a shortcut to meet promises of development and food security during the heady years of an oil price boom. Venezuela used to produce more than two-thirds of its food, and import the rest, but those proportions are now reversed, with imports making up around 70% of what the country eats.

When crude prices began sliding in 2014, bringing down oil earnings, it left the country short of dollars, and the government decided to focus its income on servicing the national debt rather than importing food.

Katiuska familyff
The Katiuska family face a daily struggle. Photograph: Emma Graham-Harrison/The Observer

“This administration decided people have to eat less for them to balance their accounts,” said Efraín Velásquez, president of the semi-official National Economic Council. “That implies poverty, social deterioration, that people are worse off.”

Supplies dried up and inflation sliced through savings and earnings, slashing the value of the currency by more than 99% since Maduro’s 2013 election. Bolivares bought with $1,000 then would be worth little over a dollar at today’s black market rate.

There has been no official inflation data from the government since 2015, but the opposition puts the figure at 250% in the first seven months of the year. In a tacit recognition of the scale of the problem, the president himself boosted the minimum wage nearly 500% last year, to “offset inflation”.

“We are the only country in the world where people dread a wage hike, because they know the price of food will follow [up],” said Ingrid Soto de Sanabria, head of nutrition at Venezuela’s top children’s hospital, who has been raising the alarm about the steep rise in cases of malnutrition.

The number of children with severe malnutrition who were admitted to the hospital rose from 30 in 2015 to 110 last year, and looks set to climb further this year based on figures from the first half of the year, she said. There has been a subtle shifting in the nature of the problems parents face. Formula for babies who can’t be breastfed was hard to track down anywhere last year, with shortages so severe they claimed the lives of newborns.

Since the government unofficially relaxed price controls there are more supplies, but parents struggle to pay for what they need, she said. “Last year there were terrible shortages, this year there are less shortages, but the prices are through the roof.

“We don’t have formula, and what little we do is thanks to donations,” she said. Mothers who are malnourished can struggle to breastfeed, exacerbating the problem.

Catholic charity Caritas has been among those raising the alarm, after launching a project to monitor and tackle child nutrition across four Venzeulan states. “Humanitarian help is needed to save lives. I wouldn’t have said that a year ago, because people weren’t dying,” said Susana Raffalli, who led the project. After decades tackling food crises around the world, from Pakistan to Algeria, she was horrified to find herself doing the same in her native Venezuela.

People check bags of foodstuff inside one of the food distribution centres, which have been set up by local ­committees ‘for supply and ­production’ in Caracas.
People check bags of foodstuff inside one of the food distribution centres, which have been set up by local ­committees ‘for supply and ­production’ in Caracas. Photograph: Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty Images

“Its not a country with a tradition of humanitarian crises like others in the region,” she said. But malnutrition has been rising sharply, with more than half of all children affected in some way. The percentage of children showing signs of acute malnourishment climbed from 8% last October to 12% in July. That is well over the 10% threshold for a severe food crisis, and she fears it is still rising. If acute malnourishment reaches 15%, international agencies consider a country or area to be in a state of food emergency.

“They are getting younger, and the cases more serious,” said Raffalli, who is particularly disturbed about the long-term implications, for individuals and for the country. Malnutrition in the youngest children can stunt development for life.

“If children are severely malnourished under two years old, it has an irreversible effect. The first 1,000 days are the most important in the life of a baby, and sets up the cognitive situation that will affect them for their whole life.”

She is waiting for funding to take the survey, and food support, to a wider range of provinces. It fills a gap in data left by a government that has not published statistics on nutrition for several years, and a gap in support left by failed public support programmes.

But she warns that no feeding programme can do anything more than protect individual children. “We need this help because people are being harmed, they are dying. But it’s a temporary solution, it won’t resolve the problem of supply and access to food.”

Many mothers are already fearful. Luisa García, not her real name, wept when she heard her malnourished son had been nursed back to health by the Caritas feeding project, but not tears of joy. She was still unemployed, with empty cupboards and a bare fridge, and yet the food handouts he had been living on would end.

“On the day they said he was up to weight, I went away crying, because I had nothing to give him to eat. I counted on that food,” the 38-year-old recalled as she waited in line at a church soup kitchen, also organised by Caritas. “We eat like crabs, picking a little where we can. Often only once a day, at best twice.”

The volunteers who make and serve the soup understand the desperation; they too have become familiar with the gnawing pain of an empty stomach. “We are all professionals and we spend almost everything we earn on food and basic needs,” said Rosalinda Rodríguez, a retired teacher who hasn’t bought new clothes since 2014, and has lost 12kg over the past year.

Although she is still in her own words “stout”, she was recently diagnosed with anaemia because she is eating such poor quality food. Another volunteer has shrunk even more. “Life has been totally derailed,” said Ricardo López, a lawyer whose son went to an international school until the crises shrank his salary – paid in bolivares – to far below the foreign currency tuition fees.

Empty shelves in Caracas
Empty shelves in Caracas. Photograph: Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters

“I try to leave lunch as late as possible myself, so you can just have a snack in the evening. My colleagues sometimes faint from hunger, or don’t have lunch.”

As with other former members of the middle class, the crisis has brought not just hunger but a hollowing out of his life. Cinemas, meals out, gym membership, even hiking in hills around the city have been cut out by the need to stave off hunger. López, who asked for his real name to be withheld, has so little money left these days after paying for food and other essentials that he could only budget 15,000 bolivares, or a single US dollar, to enjoy the summer holiday with his son.

Instead of beach trips, he spent August weekends feeding those who are even worse off. “We thought no one would come but then we were full. Hunger doesn’t take holidays.”

The crisis has left the promises, and legacy, of former president Hugo Chávez, in tatters. He rose to power and stayed there until his death from cancer in 2013, in large part promising a more equitable distribution of the country’s oil wealth and food security for all. The benefits were real for many Venezuelans, and even if they have not proved sustainable they nurtured a fierce loyalty that carried Maduro to power and a base that is sticking with him through hardship.

Even today his supporters include those who have lost serious amounts of weight, pine for their favourite food, and have been separated from beloved relatives by the vast exodus of Venezuelans seeking a better chance of going to bed on a full stomach.

“If we supported Chávez with oil at $100 a barrel, we have to support him now with it down at $40 a barrel,” said Henny Liendo, a cocoa cooperative member in the village of Chuao. Diets have shifted back to patterns more familiar to parents and grandparents, to fish, root vegetables and bananas, with less sugar, flour and meat.

He sees his curtailed diet and occasional hunger as sacrifices in a bigger war, but mourns for the past. “We were happy and we didn’t know it,” Venezuelans say in towns and villages, looking back over recent turbulent decades. The government’s most recent effort to hang on to Chávez’s legacies has been the boxes of subsidised food, known colloquially by their Spanish initials CLAP, that were launched last year. They bundle imported food together for a low price. They never last a whole month, often little more than a week for large families, but they bring cheap food and much needed variety, staples-turned-luxuries like mayonnaise, butter and milk powder into homes.

When González, the activist, got his first government box after months of waiting, he sat down to a dinner of arepas, the national corn-flour patties, with butter and cheese and a cup of milky coffee. Once an everyday meal, it felt, he said, like a luxurious indulgence.

For the very poorest in this crumbling economy, though, even a dollar to pay for them can be out of reach. “We eat yuca, bananas, green papaya,” said Katiuska Pérez, not her real name, a 28-year-old mother of six, who lives in the village of Tocoron. “When the boxes come I’m allowed two, but sometimes I can only afford one, or none at all.”

Her five daughters all registered as severely malnourished when Caritas did checks, even though like many parents she had been cutting back her own meals to boost their portions.

“I feed them first, so they have enough to eat, and we go without,” she said. Most recovered with feeding support, but on the latest visit her one-year-old had slipped back to six kilograms, a weight more appropriate for a baby half her age. Pérez said she feels hopeless. “We have been screwed for several years now. Everything that Chávez built with his hands has been kicked down.”


Emma Graham-Harrison in Caracas

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
In Venezuela’s housing projects, even loyalists have had enough
As activists demand President Maduro’s removal, his natural supporters are joining protests against shortages and high prices

Stephen Gibbs in Caracas

21, May, 2016 @8:30 PM

Article image
The Observer view on Venezuela’s need for profound change, not a sham poll | Observer editorial
The country is on its knees and Nicolás Maduro, its president, seems ill-equipped to offer salvation

Observer editorial

20, May, 2018 @5:00 AM

Article image
Only Venezuela can solve its problems – meddling by outsiders isn’t the solution
The whole world waded in after Juan Guaidó declared himself interim president, but the global tug-of-war is dangerous and unhelpful

Simon Tisdall

02, Feb, 2019 @2:30 PM

Article image
Venezuela’s high-life elite hope hard-hit poor will abandon Chávez’s legacy
Food shortages and high prices have raised conservative chances of victory in this week’s election – and buoyed the mood in Caracas’s country club

Sibylla Brodzinsky in Caracas

06, Dec, 2015 @1:22 AM

Article image
‘Maduro, our amigo’: loyalists in Venezuela cling to their man
Protests put Chavista movement in a dilemma – ditch their leader or go down with him

Tom Phillips and Patricia Torres

10, Feb, 2019 @9:00 AM

Article image
Maduro’s fate in the balance as protesters flood streets of Caracas
Air Force general backs president’s rival amid growing unrest in Venezuela

Tom Phillips and Patricia Torres in Caracas

02, Feb, 2019 @8:01 PM

Article image
Venezuela president Nicolás Maduro declares state of emergency
Beleaguered leader invokes power to ‘confront threats’ as US officials warn country could disintegrate

Emma Graham-Harrison

14, May, 2016 @7:17 PM

Article image
Venezuela: chaos and thuggery take the place of the pretty revolution
Hugo Chávez's dream world has become a nightmare of shot-down protesters, jailed oppositionists, economic meltdown and a brutal war waged against a defiant middle class

Rory Carroll

23, Feb, 2014 @12:04 AM

Article image
Nicolás Maduro: will Venezuela’s president drag his people to the edge? | Observer profile
Once he dreamed of turning his country into a workers’ paradise, but as Venezuelans go to the polls today in a vote on constitutional changes, Chávez’s heir stands accused of becoming a virtual dictator

Rory Carroll

29, Jul, 2017 @11:04 PM

Article image
President Maduro strips Venezuela’s parliament of power
Legislative powers taken from opposition-led parliament, as country’s fugitive attorney general alleges Maduro corruption links

Emma Graham-Harrison and Virginia López

19, Aug, 2017 @7:40 PM